Stolen Melodies, Copped Riffs and Royalty Robberies: What do T-Bone Walker, Chuck Berry & Keith Richards Have in Common? (The RIff)
My wife is nowhere near the music fan that I am. She does not know (or care to know) a fraction of what I do about the songs and the story behind them are concerned. She does, though, have quite an ear for music.
She regularly surprises me when she will say, “hey, this sounds exactly like such-and-such”. She asked me one time, “don’t these people get mad when someone else plays their song and claims it as their own”?
Oh, boy. That is a can of worms I’m not sure I want to open up?! On second thought, why the hell not…
The history of recorded music is full of various stories about stolen melodies, copped riffs and royalty robberies. Some of the stories are legendary:
John Fogerty was sued (unsuccessfully) by his old CCR label, Fantasy Records, for sounding too much like himself! Fantasy said that “Old Man Down the Road” sounded too much like “Run Through the Jungle” and that Fogerty was plagiarising himself. What a joke. Fogerty had to go to court to defend his style. Hear for yourselves:
In an even more maddening example, Neil Young was sued by Geffen Records for not sound like himself enough. How can anyone say this about Ol’ Neil?! They way the man shifts musical directions, you’d think the moon is controlling him as it does the tides (I love Neil for this reason). When Neil put out “Everybody’s Rockin“, Geffen sued him for making “uncharacteristic and uncommercial records”. Ok, ok, maybe “Ol’ ’80’s Cantankerous Neil” wasn’t trying to break new ground with this one, but to be sued by his label…? Here is a little ditty from that album:
And then there is this story about the Aussie band, Men at Work, that is making the headline news. You all remember their 80’s hit, “Land Down Under”, right? How could you not remember that jaunty, lilting, flute melody in it? Larrikin Music Publishing managing director, Norm Lurie, remembers it to…from his childhood. Larrikin is now suing Men At Work for back & future royalties on the song. They claim the flute part comes from the refrain of an old Aussie children’s song, the “Kookaburra Sits in the Old Gum Tree”.
Check out this link to see/hear the similarities between the two. When done watching, please proceed to vomit in your lap. This lawsuit is a joke, too. Post Script: I lived in in Sydney for five years…Vegamite sandwiches are good.
Crazy stories, hunh? Can you imagine if the guy that wrote “Happy Birthday” had it copyrighted!?! We’d all be in court!
There are many, many, MANY other examples like this. Sadly, most of them are about money. What I want to do is celebrate influence. A few months ago I wrote a post about artists wearing their influences on their sleeves.This may be a quasi-Part II to that one. In that post I quoted two people:
Neil Young: “It’s all one song”. (read here for the story behind that quote)
Hunter S. Thompson: “I’ve been plagiarising all my life. Its called learning”.
And that is exactly what it is, isn’t it…learning. You like/listen to someone. They have an impact on you. You are influenced by them. You take on some of the characteristics in your own playing. You develop your own sound from this. Is this stealing or is this influence?
Case in point: where would we be without T-Bone Walker, Chuck Berry and Keith Richards? My guess is the insane asylum from having to listen to Pat Boone for a decade longer than we should have.
Let’s have some good ol’ music fun with influence using these three R&R behemoths.
T-Bone Walker was an early pioneer (in the truest sense of the word) with the electric guitar sound. Once he plugged it in, he made that fiddle squeal and sing out like no one had ever heard before. Surely that would influence young hot-shot guitarists; and it did. Hendrix stated that T-Bone was a big influence. Even more importantly, Chuck Berry sites T-Bone as one of his two biggest influences (Louis Jordan being the other). We all know Chuck’s sound, right? Yes, but was it really Chuck’s in the first place? Listen to this T-Bone cut, “T-Bone Boogie”, that predates any Chuck recordings:
“WOW”, right? Chuck has bitched and moaned for years about how he got robbed by people stealing his sound. Most famously, he sued the Beach Boys for stealing the riff from “Sweet Little Sixteen” and won (check out this cool site called, “Sounds Just Like” for a Berry/Beach Boys comparison). Yeah, Chuck, I guess you were influenced by T-Bone. Have a listen to one of Berry’s Great 28, “Bye, Bye Johnny”. Sound a little like, “T-Bone Boogie”? Hell, yes.
Now we all know that there are a lot of “Chuck’s children out there playin’ his licks” (thanks for that lyric, Bob Seeger), none more famously than Keith Richards. Keith is an unabashed Chuck disciple. Keith has said that all he wanted to do when he started out playing was, “to sound like Chuck Berry”. Chuck’s riffs are found all throughout Keef’s playing with the Stones and with his solo band, the X-Pensive Winos. Here is a track off his first solo album, “Talk is Cheap”. Listen for those Chuck riffs like they “were ringing a bell”. Also, Johnny Johnson, Chuck’s long-time pianist is on this track pounding out on the 88’s.
There are way too many Chuck/Keef stories to talk about here. You should watch the most excellent movie, “Hail, Hail Rock & Roll” to get a feel for the relationship Master and Pupil had. Here is a clip of the two Gunslingers “learning” how to play “Carol”.
There you have it: influence in all it’s rock and roll glory. It is cool to listen to those three songs in succession to see how that guitar riff has evolved. Can you think of any other great cascading riff lineage?
While we’re at it, here is one last example: the Bo Diddley Beat. Bo’s Beat was the new sliced-bread and may never be topped. Here is an early Bo classic and a song by the Allman Brothers from the same name: